Amid the destruction sat a wrapped Mother’s Day present and a laptop computer, both untouched by the storm. A look inside the cabinets revealed stacked, unbroken dishes.
“Amazing,” he said.
Also found in the house was a Picher High School football letter jacket, whose owner lives several blocks away. The 31-year-old Richardson, himself a former prep football player, smiled wistfully when he saw the coat, which he said belonged to a player on the Gorillas’ 1984 Class A state championship team.
“It’s dirty, but it’s certainly salvageable,” he said.
Salvage was the word of the day for residents of this once-bustling lead and zinc mining town as they tried to pick up the pieces from Oklahoma’s deadliest tornado in nine years, one that killed at least six people.
The question on everyone’s mind, though, was where to go next. Picher, in far northeastern Oklahoma, in recent decades has become the site of one of the nation’s largest environmental disasters because of leftover mining waste.
The town’s population, once 20,000, had dwindled to about 800 as residents accepted buyout offers from the government to move elsewhere. Some holdouts acknowledged Sunday they likely had no choice but to leave Picher after the storm.
“I have a lot of junk,” said Sue Sigle, who has taught for almost four decades at Picher’s elementary school. “I guess it’s time to clean up and see what I need.”
Besides the deaths in Oklahoma on Saturday, at least 14 others were killed when the same storm system produced a tornado in Missouri. One additional storm-related death was reported in Georgia.
Gov. Brad Henry flew over the damaged section of Picher Sunday and marveled at the destruction, which included uprooted trees, debris piles that used to be houses and smashed vehicles that had been picked up and tossed by the tornado’s fierce winds.
Looking at a vehicle mangled so badly it was difficult to tell if it was a car or a pickup truck, Henry said quietly, “I don’t know how they’ll ever get this cleaned up.”
In a more upbeat moment as he greeted rescue workers, Henry answered his own question.
“There are certainly real challenges in the days and months ahead but we Oklahomans are excellent at responding to challenge, to adversity, to disaster,” Henry said. “We come together. We help each other out.”
Picher Fire Chief Jeff Reeves — whose parents lost their home in the twister — said he had heard from the state Medical Examiner that all those reported missing had been found and that it seemed likely the death toll wouldn’t rise.
One man and a woman who were riding in a car were found dead, along with the car, in a lagoon while the body of another man from the car wound up in a nearby tree, said state Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten. A 13-year-old girl who was riding in the car survived the crash, and was released after her injuries were treated at a hospital, Ooten said.
The bodies of two other women were found near their homes on the west side of Picher, and the final reported death was a woman whose body was found about a block from her home. That woman’s infant child was initially reported dead, but Ooten said Sunday evening that the child was actually alive at a Tulsa hospital where the child’s father had also been taken.
Residents said it was surreal to see the tornado jump over a large mound of mine waste, known as chat, and move through the southeast part of the town.
“I swear I could see cars floating,” said Herman Hernandez, 68. “And there was a roar, louder and louder.”
Some homes were reduced to the foundation, others lost several walls. In the home in which Reeves’ parents lived, the tornado knocked down a bedroom wall, but left clothes hanging neatly in a closet.
A Best Western hotel sign was blown miles before coming to rest against a post by one house. At another home, a basketball goal planted in concrete had its metal support twisted so the rim hung only about three feet above ground.
Ottawa County emergency manager Frank Geasland said a government-sponsored buyout of homes in the town left some residences vacant, and this may have prevented a greater loss of life.
He said evidence of storm damage could be seen in a 15-mile path through the county. The storm also caused damage in the towns of Quapaw and Peoria, but southeast Picher was the hardest hit area in the 5:39 p.m. twister.
Proof of the tornado’s power could be seen Sunday in the mattresses and twisted metal sent high into the canopy of trees. One uprooted tree had a root system 12 feet high.
President Bush called Mother’s Day “a sad day for those who lost their lives in Oklahoma and Missouri and Georgia because of the tornadoes (who) are wondering whether or not tomorrow will be a bright and hopeful day.
“We send our prayers to those who lost their lives, the families of those who lost their lives,” said Bush, who spoke to governors in all three states. “And the federal government will be moving hard to help.”
Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., was in Picher Sunday and said he has been in touch with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and that he would work with Henry to request and expedite government aid to help with the damage.
The area is part of a Superfund site and residents have been asked to take part in state and federal buyouts in recent years.
“From what I’ve been able to determine, that wouldn’t have any bearing on whether a disaster declaration would come forth,” FEMA spokesman Earl Armstrong said.
Henry said he would “guarantee” that the buyout process would continue for those whose homes were destroyed while negotiating buyout offers.
The National Weather Service sent out a tornado warning at 5:26 p.m., 13 minutes before the tornado hit Picher, said David Jankowski, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Tulsa. Tornado sirens warned residents to take shelter, and many apparently did, in cellars and interior rooms.
“We’ve seen homes that were completely leveled to the foundation,” Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. George Brown said. “In a few of these homes you would have had to be subterranean to survive.”
Ed Keheley, an area resident who’d been involved with a trust to buy out Picher residents, was headed to town to help out Saturday night when his path was blocked by debris. When he stopped his vehicle and got out, he heard a woman screaming and looked over to see her hand reaching out of debris.
“She was sitting in the bathtub, she had curlers in her hair and she wanted out of there,” Keheley said.
Keheley and several others were able to pull the woman from the debris. He said she emerged “without a scratch.”
It was the deadliest tornado in Oklahoma since a May 3, 1999, twister that killed 44 people in the Oklahoma City area.
“People were just wandering up and down the streets. Some had blood on them, some were dazed,” Keheley said.
Geasland said dozens of people were injured, some seriously. The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management reported 150 injuries.
“Trees are toppled over, ripped apart,” he said. “There are cars thrown everywhere. It looks like a bomb went off, pretty much.”
The National Weather Service estimated that at least eight tornadoes had been spawned in Oklahoma along six storm tracks. Three teams were dispatched to assess damage, determine exactly how many separate tornadoes had touched down and assign each one a rating, meteorologist Steve Amburn said.
Emergency management officials in Missouri estimated that 19 people had been hospitalized and 50 homes had been damaged or destroyed in Newton County, where a twister hit Seneca, about 20 miles southeast of Picher.
One person was also killed in a mobile home Sunday in Dublin, Ga., after the storm had moved east.